Much has come to light in the past few weeks on this case. Can you please take us to the beginning? What happened?
For decades, Douglas Latchford, a Briton based in London and Bangkok, was a major figure in the elite market for ancient Cambodian sculpture. He built up his own substantial collection, and sometimes in collaboration with other dealers, sold or donated numerous Cambodian antiquities to prominent museums and wealthy private collectors around the world. For many years, he was dogged by accusations that he was directly involved in looting and smuggling antiquities out of Cambodia. This talk gained momentum when activity by Latchford featured in US government cases cracking down on illicit art trading by other dealers in 2012 and 2016. In 2019, the US indicted Latchford himself for his role in the extensive, decades-long plunder and trafficking of Cambodian antiquities. He passed away in 2020, before he could have his day in court. Shortly thereafter, Cambodia announced that Latchford’s daughter had agreed to repatriate what remained of his private collection, said to total over 100 artefacts.
Last week, a major curtain was lifted, exposing how Latchford managed his large inventory of allegedly illicit antiquities. The ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists), with the Washington Post, the Guardian and other organizations, revealed evidence from the Pandora Papers leak that Latchford, together with his daughter and son-in-law, had placed antiquities in offshore secret trusts and companies that they controlled. (See articles of the Guardian, ICIJ, and the Washington Post.) While his daughter denied that there was any illegitimate intent in this, the trusts concealed the artefacts from any government authorities that might scrutinize the antiquities’ origins or tax assets or sales. Into these secret entities Latchford also deposited substantial financial investments, the source of which must be investigated.
As an expert on SE Asian art and antiquities, what are your thoughts on these events?
I found the reporting very powerful. The articles well highlighted the significance of the ancient statues to Cambodian people: they’re not only aesthetic achievements, but guardian spirits that have been violently removed from their communities. The Cambodian government has been actively researching the numerous antiquities abroad and working to secure repatriations. Reading the reporting, there was a real poignancy to seeing the photographs of the statues behind glass in American museums alongside the narrative of the criminality behind the massive plunder of Cambodian heritage.
Anyone who visits museums should read these articles. You won’t see antiquities on display in the same way again.
How does the Latchford case speak to problems in the art and antiquities world?
The case shows how someone could become honored, rich, and powerful by benefitting from a culture – that of the art world – where tough questions are all too rare and secrecy is the byword.
A key strategy for Latchford was cultivating relationships with museums, because they are highly regarded institutions that confer legitimacy. He made well-chosen gifts alongside his sales to prominent museums. He concocted fake documentation to hide the looted origins of antiquities he handled. He cultivated and hired academics to write for his self-published books. In these books and in other articles, he published artefacts in his own collection, and no matter how obviously self-serving these publications were, they were accepted by many in the art world as ‘scholarship.’ All these actions were meant to enhance, or even launder, his reputation, while he ruthlessly plundered Cambodia’s cultural heritage and used offshore secrecy havens that are the refuge of those hiding from the law.
Most museums share limited or zero public information about the provenance (the origins and history of ownership) of their collections, inhibiting public inquiry no less investigation by Cambodia. Is this appropriate for institutions that claim to serve the public good? Are there other figures in museum circles who use tactics similar to Latchford’s?
One positive from the Latchford case is the awareness it has raised about the scale of cultural racketeering. If people take one lesson from this event into the future, what should it be?
Museums have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate leadership by upholding values of fairness, transparency, and public education and assisting Cambodia in its efforts to achieve justice. As Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition has stated previously, museums should be highly concerned about the antiquities in their possession that passed through Latchford’s hands and investigate them now.
Angela S. Chiu, PhD is an independent scholar, formerly a research associate in the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is the author of The Buddha in Lanna: Art, Lineage, Power, and Place in Northern Thailand (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017). Twitter: @ChiuAngelaS